Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Moneyball in Racing: Could it Work?

If you are not familiar with the hit movie (and my all time favorite sports film) Moneyball starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, let me give you a basic synopsis: Brad Pitt's character Billy Beane is the general manager for the Oakland A's (takes place in 2001-2002) in Major League Baseball and he has to take a seriously underfunded team (he has $35 million to work with, the Yankees have $160 million) and take them to the World Series. Using a formula developed by assistant GM Peter Brand (Jonah Hill's character) that was first introduced by Bill James, they found players that no one wanted, signed them for cheap, and won a lot of games, including the all time MLB record for longest win streak with 20 straight wins.

Now I won't spoil the spectacular ending to the movie, but it got me thinking. See, in the movie, Jonah Hill's character uses Bill James's formula using home runs, batting average, runs batted in, and a lot of other statistics, to come up with a single number to determine the value of a baseball player. Now, I was wondering if a far greater mind than my own could come up with an equation using average start, average finish, wins, podiums, total overtakes, laps led, etc. to come up with a single number to determine the value of a driver.

I feel as if a system was produced to determine the value of drivers, we could see a rise of drivers who don't get enough chances to prove what they got on a full time basis in any racing series rather than seeing questionable moves being made by teams. Example: a guy like Bertrand Baugette should not be on the sidelines, he should be in an Indycar full time, or even DTM for that matter. He is just one of the many drivers in a lot of series who do not have a chance to race.

Bertrand Baguette Bertrand Baguette of Germany, drives the #30 Aspria Dallara Honda during the IZOD IndyCar Series Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Bertrand Baugette at the 2011 Indy 500, led 11 laps (Photo: Getty Images)

Another example of how the system could aid drivers would Oriol Servia. Oriol was very close to not running the 2011 Indycar Season. His stats that pointed to the fact that he should have been in Indycar full time long before the 2011 season. And now look at him. He is an absolute animal on the track, often gaining 10-20 places from the start of the race. If a system of judging drivers were in place, it would hold drivers accountable and give other drivers a fair shot at racing.


Using this formula could help us compare and contrast current drivers to see if they should retain their rides. Comparing Oriol Servia's Indycar stats to, not picking on him but picking a driver at random, Marco Andretti, this is what you see: Wins - MA 2, O 1. Podiums - MA 16, O 16. Top-Tens - MA 50, O 95. DNFs - MA 32, O 40. Total race starts - MA 114, O 179. It just seems like Oriol having 45 more top-ten finishes and only 8 more DNFs when he also has had 65 more starts could be much more beneficial to a team than Marco.


A real example of this at work, in my opinion, was HVM Racing in 2010 picking up driver Simona de Silvestro for what I could imagine not too much money. She did a spectacular job, especially as a rookie. A system to determine the value of drivers will help more drivers like Simona get into Indycar. This formula could apply to every racing series, especially feeder series. This could help drivers rise through the ranks that truly deserve a chance to move up.

As far as the money aspect of racing, this system could help teams save money by hiring drivers for a sensisble amount of money. Example, and I'm not saying he isn't wirth it, but Lewis Hamilton signed with Mercedes GP for three years totalling $100 million dollars in Formula 1. Only in F1 does Felipe Massa make twice as much as Kimi Raikkonen, or (in 2012) Heikki Kovalainen make 20x as much as Paul di Resta ($150k). McLaren did a little bit of moneyball in their own way, signing young gun Sergio Perez to a very modest three year, $20 million deal. Obviously, money and sponsorship money play a big role in which drivers go were, but even putting this mathaematical formula in could determine if drivers with money are going to bring results to your team.

Paul di Resta in 2012 (Photo: Wikipedia)
Spending is crazy in F1, but finding the right driver for cheap to allocate money elsewhere could be key. Although the spending isn't as crazy in Indycar, nor do drivers have huge contracts, this principle could also be applied in Indycar. But a place I think it could mark a huge difference in the way things work is in NASCAR. Finding the right drivers for cheap for smaller teams could be what helps propell them into contention instead of being backmarkers on a week to week basis.

Have a thought? Let me hear what your thinking?

-Matthew Hickey

2 comments:

  1. How much of what you propose is already here?

    http://rankings.autosport.com/?nationality=All&series=145

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  2. I would *love* to see a driver ranking system like you're describing. The trouble with the one linked above is it assume the drivers have full-time rides, that the quality of the teams are the same, etc.

    It seems to me the keys would be:

    1. 2 year rolling period (1 year is probably too fluky for racing.)
    2. Factor for evaluating drivers relative to their teammates.
    3. Factor for things like passes, etc. to avoid skew from wrecks.
    4. Drivers need to be able to "step down" if they get over their heads to avoid crashing into the peter principle (i.e. people getting promoted beyond their abilies, which imo is a huge problem in indycar)

    But hey, I'm a tennis fan, where *everything* is rankings driven. I rather suspect too much rankings talk would make sponsors very sad...

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